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Booking airfare online: The best tools for finding the best fares

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Photo: PhotoDisc
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 31, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, AirTran, American, America West, ATA, Continental, Delta, Expedia, flexible search, Frontier, Independence Air, Jessica Labrencis, JetBlue, Midwest Airlines, Northwest, Orbitz, Southwest, Spirit, Travelocity, United, US Airways.

Each year, more travelers are choosing to purchase flights online. Many airlines encourage travelers to book on their website by offering price guarantees, and by charging fees to penalize travelers who book with airline reservations agents (on the telephone or at the airport) and online travel agents. We've compared the airlines' and agencies' searches to determine which offer the best tools to help you find the lowest fares.

Online travel agencies

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Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity are the major online booking agencies. In general, their search tools don't differ greatly from most airlines' search tools: They allow travelers to book round-trip, one-way, and multi-destination flights. All three agencies also allow customers to add a hotel and/or car to the search, which often costs less than booking each item separately. And, each agency has extra features that make booking airfare easy.

  • Expedia has a flexible booking tool that allows travelers to search a range of dates to find the lowest fares. However, the search is only available on popular U.S. routes, which limits its usefulness for many travelers.
  • Orbitz has a unique booking tool called Flex Search that allows travelers to search three different ways: by weekends, bonus days, and flexible stays. The weekend search displays fares for weekend trips in an entire month, allowing customers to see which days are the least expensive. The bonus dates option searches up to three days before and after the selected dates. The flexible stays option searches for flights from two to 16 days in a given range. In addition to Flex Search, Orbitz will also allow customers to search alternate airports within 80 miles of the selected airport.
  • Travelocity's unique feature is its flexible dates option. Travelocity searches both domestic and international routes—a great resource for determining which airlines offer the lowest fares for specific month(s). And, Travelocity will also notify travelers if an alternate airport's fares are cheaper.

In our opinion, the all-around best search tool for finding a baseline price is Travelocity's flexible dates feature. Because it is available on both domestic and international routes, it can be useful for all travelers, regardless of destination.

If you're looking for a weekend trip, Orbitz's Flex Search tool is the best option. It's one of the only tools of its kind that clearly displays which days offer the cheapest rates for weekend trips, and is available on both domestic and international routes (although Orbitz's website has not been updated to reflect the international searches).

However, the down side to booking with an agency is the booking fee that all three agencies charge. Expedia and Travelocity charge $5, while Orbitz recently raised its fee to $6.99 on most flights. And, some airlines' fares are not included in the agencies' searches, including low-fare carriers JetBlue and Southwest.

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